Venice's annual celebration of masks, costumes and history opened Sunday with the Flight of the Angel ceremony in St. Mark's Square. The annual spectacle features a beauty pageant winner dressed in a Carnival costume who descends from the square's iconic bell tower as she scatters rose petals into the adoring crowd.

The hundreds-year-old event is a public party ahead of the Roman Catholic fasting month of Lent. Known as the world's most delicious festival, Carnival runs through Feb. 17, with thousands of participants expected to roam through Venice's famous canals and narrow streets wearing detailed masks and costumes over the next few weeks. For those unable to pack elaborate costumes in their luggage, shops around the city rent or sell every detail needed to participate in the revelry.

Carnival was first held in Venice in the 11th Century, according to BBC News. Masks shielding the identity of party-goers have been part of the fun since the 13th century. Woman traditionally wore the columbine half-mask, covering only the eyes, nose and upper face, but it has since been adopted by men, too.

Costumes are only limited by the wearer's imagination, with ancient Egyptian themes, jeweled accessories, creative headdresses and white masks often part of the style. To celebrate, the city hosts fanciful dinners, parades, masked balls and concerts culminating in the la maschera più bella, or the most beautiful mask, contest judged by a panel of international costume and fashion designers, according to PBS.

Security is a concern after several recent terrorist attacks across Europe. "This year Piazza San Marco will have a strict security and control," city commissioner Sergio Pomponio told the Venice Times. "We have to give a peace of mind to everyone who visits our city and the events. On February 8 and 15 for example, there will be extra security and gates will be installed to the most popular sites."

There are more than 50 official Carnival events in Venice. They are listed here. The city is often quiet during the week, even during Carnival. For the full experience, visit during the weekends.

Popular Carnival merchants include Ca’ Macanà (Calle delle Botteghe 3172, Dorsoduro 0039 041 277 6142;, Tragicomica (Calle dei Nomboli 2800, San Polo, 0039 041 721 102; or Papier Maché (Calle lunga Santa Maria Formosa 5174B, Castello, 0039 041 522 9995;, according to The Telegraph.

RTR4OP0D Revelers are seen inside the Caffe Florian coffee shop in Saint Mark's Square during the Venice Carnival, February 8, 2015. Photo: Reuters

RTR4OP0A Masked revelers pose at Saint Mark's square during Carnival in Venice, February 8, 2015. Photo: Reuters

RTR4OOOK The traditional Columbine descends from Saint Mark's tower bell on an iron cable during the Venetian Carnival in Venice, February 8, 2015. Photo: Reuters

RTR4OOHL Masked revelers gather in Saint Mark square during carnival in Venice February 8, 2015. Photo: Reuters

RTR4OLH8 A Carnival fan poses on a gondola in a Venice canal near St. Mark's square February 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters